Rhythm Circus follows the Yellow Brick Road to the wellspring of cinematic fantasy
A month or so before we gird up for what’s sure to be the immense sorcery of Peter Jackson’s trilogy-capping The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, in blows a twister of invention to remind us exactly where the Kiwi director’s kind of cinema came from in the first place. Set for release on 3 November, The Wizard of Oz 3D – the 75th Anniversary edition of the landmark fantasy musical – ought to go down as one of film’s greatest-ever rescue missions, decisively pulling the historic classic from the clutches of rotting celluloid for a top-down, pixel-powered jetwash.
Lest anyone think that this film is in any way diminished by its role in inspiring a recent, lame-ass talent show presided over by a pervy-looking Andrew Lloyd Webber, this frame-by-frame polish and format conversion comes as a timely waker upper. Make no mistake: The Wizard of Oz is as important to film history as Metropolis, Citizen Kane and the banner-flapping majesty of Kurosawa’s feudal epics. Why? Because it struck a similar balance between intimacy and scale, pushed the science of the medium to new heights and delivered brain-tattooing iconography that influenced countless later bids to spirit audiences away. It is bold, colour-drenched and deeply imaginative filmmaking.
If you need a recap on the story, you’re probably reading the wrong website, but the essence of it is that farm-dwelling Kansas resident Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is chased into a faraway land by a serious spot of canine bother. With her plucky mutt Toto accused of gnashing dour neighbour Almira Gulch (the hatchet-faced Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy does a bunk to save the errant hound – right into the path of an oncoming tornado. While her family and the farmhands have enough time to nip into a storm shelter and batten down the hatches, Dorothy gets back too late and has to take refuge in the house itself which, in one of cinema’s most delirious fever dreams, is promptly swept up foundations and all – and dropped on top of a witch in a parallel dimension.
Here, the battle lines are drawn with the casual simplicity of primary school flashcards – and that’s a compliment, not a criticism. The squished mage, it turns out, is The Wicked Witch of the East, lover of stripy, Goth stockings and blingin’ red shoes – and not a whole lot else, apparently. Squeaky, diminutive proles the Munchkins have had a gutful of the woman, and instantly hail Dorothy a saviour via a song that has since been amiably repurposed as a kiss-off anthem for Margaret Thatcher. Their celebrations, though, are quashed by East’s verdant sibling, The Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton again, even more hatchet-faced), who wants Dorothy to pay for her sister’s untimely flattening with her life. Enter Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, who quickly teleports East’s funky footwear on to Dorothy and hurries her on a Yellow Brick Roadtrip to the Emerald City.
Along the way, Ms Gale picks up the ragtag trio of the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion (forerunners of R2D2, C3P0 and Chewbacca) and, with every passing musical number, gets deeper and deeper in the shit with Ms West. Hoping for salvation in the Emerald City, Dorothy instead stumbles across the unlikely spectre of political intrigue: a complacent power structure controlled by an isolated kingpin who may not be entirely what he seems. And that’s all before the flying monkeys attack.
It’s hard to overstate just how ravishing The Wizard of Oz looks after three-quarters of a century. But even that giddy miracle is amplified by the 3D conversion – a job so accomplished that at first, it almost jars, evoking a whiff of the “uncanny valley”: you are watching a 75-year old motion picture that has been meticulously dissected and re-composed by 21st-Century technology to imbue it with stereoscopic depth. As a result, this eerily durable film, flooded with that ultra-modern sheen, now attains a sharpness and newness that makes you feel like you are standing on each and every set. You can see every tiny ring of rust around every single rivet on the Tin Woodman’s armour. You can see that the Scarecrow’s head makeup was crafted with an intricate, canvassy weave, to resemble a scrap of sackcloth. Detail pounces at your eyes from every corner and mugs them for attention. The restoration team has uncovered and vividly celebrated a host of textures that were entirely lost to the film on VHS, and even DVD.
That scrupulousness pays off in the big reveals, with the twister snaking across the Kansas landscape in the sepia-tinted first act heralding a parade of wonders. The levitation of Dorothy’s home – with the concussed girl tormented by surreal visions outside her window – is high-octane nightmare fuel made all the more potent with the addition of 3D. Then there’s Dorothy throwing open the door of her monochrome home and stepping out into Oz’s Technicolor world. Her arrival at the Emerald City, replete with eye-snagging angles and depth. The Horse of a Different Colour, practically trotting out of the screen. Ms West’s broomstick-powered skywriting, creating words that seem to hang in the space of the viewer, let alone over the citizens of Oz. The bulbous crystal ball at West’s castle, torturing Dorothy with visions of the world she left behind. Everything about the enterprise feels just a little more tangible – emboldening the picturebook production design, which feels like a carnival of living illustrations.
All told, it is an ironclad collaboration across the ages – but let’s face it, the restoration team had the stuff of genius to work with. 1939 was a pretty good year for director Victor Fleming: the other tentpole release to carry his name in its duration was a little Civil War tale called Gone With the Wind. While each movie drew in the talents of other directors en route to release, including George Cukor and King Vidor, for Fleming to be recognised as the principal driving force behind both films is an astonishing feat.
The imagery that Fleming unleashed has come to define how we as a species perceive the fiction of L Frank Baum, whose works are now in the public domain. Go and see the stage musical Wicked – adapted from Gregory Maguire’s brilliant, feminist novel about how Ms West was badly misunderstood – and you will notice that the set design is directly inspired by Fleming’s film. Ditto the look of TV’s edgy, postmodern Oz adventure Tin Man (2007), and last year’s James Franco blockbuster Oz the Great and Powerful – a fulsome enough tribute to Fleming’s vision, but cluttered and ultimately undone by its true role as a job-creation scheme for the rendering community.
Fleming’s Oz influence has touched numerous other works, too: the deliberate artifice and garishness of Mike Hodges’ superb Flash Gordon (1980); the world hopping of Tron (1982) and its sequel Tron Legacy (2010); Bilbo and Frodo hauling open the door of Bag End to roam beyond the Shire in Jackson’s Middle Earth epics; Ash’s plunge into the Middle Ages at the end of Evil Dead 2 (1987), a clear riff on Dorothy’s Oz-bound crash landing; David Lynch’s direct imitations of Fleming in Wild at Heart (1990) – and let’s not forget the entire career of Tim Burton as another, major beneficiary.
A film with which there is literally nothing wrong, The Wizard of Oz is good to go for, hmm, another 75 years, I’d say… at least.
The Wizard of Oz is out on 3D Blu Ray 3rd November
Words > Matt Packer
How the restoration team brought Oz back to life